Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Blackboard," by Lewis Buzbee

Lewis Buzbee, who teaches at the University of San Francisco, where I also teach, has written yet another thoughtful, thought-provoking, and enjoyable book: “Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom” (Graywolf, 2014). (See also my 3/9/10 post on one of his earlier books, “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop”). “Blackboard” is, as the subtitle states, a kind of memoir of Buzbee’s own schooling through the years, starting in elementary school. He actually went back and visited the schools he attended, which helped jog his memories, and is also evocative for the reader. He also interweaves his childhood memories with what he observes in his own daughter’s schools now. Buzbee writes beautifully and persuasively about the power of teachers and education. He is a great supporter of public education, and gives example after example of specific teachers and specific things they did to educate, encourage, and inspire him. He freely states that because of certain difficulties in his early life, especially the death of his father, he could have easily gone off the rails and gotten into trouble, and even started in that direction, but that over and over again it was dedicated and caring teachers who took the time and effort to go beyond their normal duties and help and guide him. This is such a good response to, and countering of, the too-often-heard negative comments about teachers these days. And interestingly, Buzbee, as mentioned above, became not only a writer but also a teacher (at the college level) himself. The book is full of vivid, telling and intriguing details, and bursting with the sense of how things actually happen in real-life classrooms. We feel we know Mrs. Moody and her kindergarten classroom, including how it was set up. We learn about Mrs. Talley and the first grade classroom, and about Buzbee’s crush on Miss Cleveland, his second grade teacher. We meet several other amazing teachers Buzbee had in middle school, high school, and college. We hear how he fell in love with books, largely because of his teachers, and how reading became so central to his life and his future as a writer. As someone who comes from a family of teachers –- grandparents, great-aunt, aunt, mother, brothers, sister-in-law -- I am happy to see this kind of recognition of what good teachers do, day in and day out, and how they influence generations of young people. But this book is not didactic or (only) message-centered; it is an engaging memoir and story. “Blackboard” is a small book that will inspire readers in a big way; it certainly inspired me.

Friday, September 19, 2014

"The Stories of Jane Gardam"

I finished reading “The Stories of Jane Gardam” (Europa Editions, 2014) a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t written about it yet because I fear I can’t possibly adequately convey how wonderful these stories, selected from her collections over the years, are. Readers of this blog may remember that I have written about British writer Gardam’s work before. I wrote about the first two novels of her great “Old Filth” trilogy (3/18/10), her novel “Crusoe’s Daughter” (6/3/12), and the third novel in the aforementioned trilogy (6/22/13). As I wrote on 6/22/13, Gardam “is quite simply a genius in the strength and depth of her writing, and in the way she captures this particular world and the nuances of the characteristics of each person, and the relationships among them. Her writing is evocative but never sentimental; it is descriptive without going overboard; she involves readers without pandering to them.” As I think about her writing after reading “The Stories,” one adjective that occurs to me is “bracing.” The stories are powerful, energizing, and somehow make the reader feel fortunate to be part of the experience of Gardam’s world. There are a couple of stories that I liked less because of the elements of whimsy or fantasy or experimentalism, but only because of my own tastes in literature. The overwhelming majority of the 28 stories are wonderful, original, thought-provoking, written with such control, and pure joy to read. A couple of the stories show the originals of later novels, such as the story titled “Old Filth” (“Failed in Hong Kong Try London”). The stories such as “Old Filth” that focus on lives of British colonials and expatriates are of particular interest to me because of my background growing up in India, and my own research and writing on the experiences of Third Culture Kids, including missionary children. Gardam, who is 86 years old, has given us an amazing wealth of great writing, and seems to be going strong, still writing. I look forward to reading her future work.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Early Decision," by Lacy Crawford

Many of us, especially those involved in the higher education world and/or those who have children, are fascinated with the admissions process and everything that leads up to and accompanies it. Applying to colleges, at least the top-ranked colleges, has become a sort of arms race. More and more students apply for the limited spaces, agonizing over their grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and the all-important “personal statement” essays. Sometimes it is the parents who are most invested in the process. There have been a few books -- both nonfiction and fiction -- about this process recently. The latest is “Early Decision” (William Morrow, 2013), by Lacy Crawford, a novel. The main character is Anne, a private college counselor. The novel covers one application season, and focuses on five students with whom Anne is working to help them write the perfect essays and maximize their chances of admission to top-tier universities. The focus is on the five students and their evolving interests and abilities and choices; an almost equal focus is on the parents of the five students. A major “message” of the novel is that parents are too involved in the process, and are too invested in ensuring their children are accepted to name-brand (preferably Ivy League) colleges. The portrayals of the students are empathetic, as it is clear that some of them have different desires regarding their educations than their parents do. In contrast, the portrayals of the parents are scathing. Anne walks a fine line: she is hired by the parents to help their children get into high-status schools, but she also wants to help the students discover their true interests and preferences, which might not always be found at these most prestigious colleges. We also learn about Anne’s own issues and insecurities. She is highly educated but can’t figure out what she wants to do with her life; she is successful at what she is doing, but doesn’t see it as a lifelong career. She has also spent too many years with her boyfriend, a handsome, dashing actor who is unreliable, unsupportive, and unfaithful. By the end of the book, especially as explained in an epilogue, there are some happy endings and some not-so-happy ones…just like in real life. This novel succeeds as an exploration of the craziness of the “Harvard or die” mindset among some parents and thus among some of their children. It also succeeds as a story that catches and keeps readers’ attention to the end.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Men Explain Things to Me," by Rebecca Solnit

Readers may have heard the term “mansplaining,” referring to men’s explaining things to women – often condescendingly – that women already know about, and may even be experts on. Rebecca Solnit -- an expert on many matters, including the environment, San Francisco, walking, and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, among other topics, and the author of 15 books -- inspired this phrase, with her essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” Now she has published a slim collection of her essays -- “Men Explain Things to Me” (Haymarket/Dispatch, 2014) -- that includes this essay. Solnit, who lives in San Francisco and whom I have heard speak (she is an excellent and engaging speaker), hastens to point out that not all men do this, but that it is enough of a phenomenon to warrant pointing out. Solnit provides some jawdropping examples, not only from her own experiences but from those of many others, including contributors to the website “Academic Men Explain Things to Me,” where “hundreds of university women shared their stories of being patronized, belittled, talked over, and more.” Solnit explains that this problem is not just a small annoyance, but something that has larger contexts (sexism) and larger consequences (silencing women). She notes “It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field: that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence” (pp. 4-5). Most of the other six essays in this small but powerful collection also deal with issues of gender and power. “The Longest War” and “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: Some Thoughts on the IMF, Global Injustice, and a Stranger on a Train” deal with rape and other sexual assault. Other essays speak of so many instances throughout history of women’s powerlessness, voicelessness, erasure. One essay explores the connections between same-sex marriage and women’s issues. Solnit always writes with passion backed up by facts and reason. She alludes to history, politics, art, literature, and current events. One essay focuses on the life, thought, and writing of Virginia Woolf. This is a potent, important collection of essays from one of our leading writers and thinkers. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

On Not Wanting to Read David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks"

I am reading the rapturous reviews (and a couple of less rapturous ones) of David Mitchell’s new novel, “The Bone Clocks,” with trepidation. It may well be wonderful, but it is clearly not my kind of novel. Vanity Fair, for example, calls it “a “genre-warping, time-tripping, metaphysical thriller with a vengeance and a cast of thousands” (September 2014, p. 184). In my own reading choices, I am averse to each and every one of those five descriptors. More detailed descriptions of the novel have done nothing to make me think I would enjoy it or even get through it. That is all fine; I fully admit that my reading preferences are not always those of others, and I definitely understand that they may indicate limitations on my part. But what is the problem? Why can’t I just decide not to read “The Bone Clocks,” and leave it at that? Well, it seems that this novel is the latest “must-read,” and that I will feel out of touch and unadventurous if I am not willing to read it. Of course I have felt this dilemma numerous times over the years. And it is clearly not a big deal, for me or anyone else. But as I felt those familiar oh-oh feelings as I was reading the reviews, I was reminded of how we all have our own very clear preferences in reading, and of how those preferences do not necessarily align with what is anointed as “the best” by literary critics and other readers. And I was reminded of how I still have some of that feeling – perhaps left over from literature classes in college and graduate school? – that as a reader of serious fiction, I limit myself in ways that may or may not make sense, and may or may not be good for my own intellectual growth. Do any of you worry about this?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"Friendship," by Emily Gould

I love reading novels about friendships, especially friendships between and among women. My own friendships, some very longtime, have meant so much to me. One of the (many!) joys of raising my now adult daughter has been seeing her great gift for friendship, making and keeping and nourishing her many friendships, especially but not only with women, from various times and aspects of her life. So I was prepared to enjoy the novel “Friendship” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), by Emily Gould, and mostly I did – simply because of the subject matter – although I wasn’t bowled over by it. Bev and Amy are longtime best friends, living in New York City, now thirtyish. They have each had serious ups and downs in their stuttering careers, their finances, their housing, and their romantic lives. Gould’s portrayal of these often-difficult years in millennials’ lives, especially in today’s economic climate, is one of the strongest features of this novel. These two characters are educated, come from at least middle-class backgrounds, and have been raised to think that they will be able to step into good jobs and prosperous, successful lives; it is hard for them to accept that it doesn’t necessarily work that way. We see how they struggle, doubt themselves, sometimes delude themselves, and are both hopeful and frightened about their futures. When one character is doing better and the other worse, their relationship is threatened, especially at times when one feels the other is not being supportive, or one disagrees with the other’s life decisions. One problem with the portrayal of the friendship, I feel, is that we are told over and over what great friends the two young women are, yet there seems to be something missing, something not quite convincing, about their friendship. Overall, though, this novel is very readable and, despite the setbacks the characters suffer, we as readers feel fairly confident that there will be at least reasonably happy endings for Bev and Amy.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"The Hundred-Year House," by Rebecca Makkai

Writers and artists. Academics. Intriguing characters. Complicated relationships. A mystery. What more could this reader want? Rebecca Makkai’s novel, “The Hundred-Year House” (Viking, 2014) provides all of the above and more. The story of the Devohr house and its various inhabitants starts in 1999 and moves backward in time almost a century. As it does so, layers of secrets are gradually revealed. One of the most interesting aspects is that the house was first a family house, then an artists’ colony, and then a family house again; many of the family members were entangled with the residents of the artists’ colony in various ways, either simultaneously, or later as they did research. (As an aside: just the phrase "artists' colony" is enough to make me want to read a book....) Some of the characters are appealing, some not, but almost all are interesting. One reservation I have about the novel is that even at the end, there were a couple of loose ends in the plot that were not tied up (or perhaps were revealed so subtly that I didn’t figure it out?), and that was a bit frustrating.
 
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